Sensor developer shifts into commercial fields
By ABQJournal News Staff
October 19, 2015
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Vista Photonics is helping to keep astronauts safe in space, and soon it could be doing the same for Navy submarine personnel.

The company makes laser-based gas detectors and monitors. Since launching in 2003, it's received about $15 million in Small Business Development grants from a broad number of federal agencies to develop sensors designed to detect gases in small and large places, from the confines of the International Space Station to sprawling outdoor landfills.

NASA deployed a specially designed Vista sensor about two years ago on the space station where it continues today to monitor levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, ammonia and water vapor. The technology has worked so well that NASA has contracted Vista to redesign it for detecting ammonia on the future Orion spacecraft.

The company is also developing a new breath sensor for NASA's next generation of space suits. Its sensors are already providing such life-support systems on current and previous suits.

And, Vista has now adapted the space station sensor for use on Navy submarines.

"We built a duplicate that will go out on a submarine in the next couple of months for sea trials," said Vista President Jeffrey Pilgrim, a physical chemist who co-founded the company with his wife, Melissa.

Most of its work to date has been building sensor prototypes that often get sold to prime government contractors who provide specific services to federal agencies. But in the last few years, the company has been paving the way for commercial manufacture and deployment of the sensors it builds, hoping to move beyond SBIR-funded research and development projects.

Vista recently moved its offices from Santa Fe to Las Cruces to be closer to White Sands Missile Range, where it often does testing, and to forge closer collaboration with New Mexico State University, which could provide interns and engineers as the company moves into more commercial operations.

The company has also scaled back its workforce to become leaner, more agile and more focused on engineering of products, Pilgrim said.

"We're better poised now to do the work we need to do to build prototypes and copy them for commercial deployment rather than having a whole bunch of Ph.D-level people working on science projects," Pilgrim said.
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